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Freethought

Opinion | April 19, 2010

When I first arrived at Tufts as a freshman, I felt more welcome than anywhere I had been before. Orientation introduced me to my new school and the place I would call home for the next four years. And then, at the candle-lighting ceremony something happened: the University Chaplain said “…and we thank our Creator for bringing us together here.” As his voice echoed over the President’s Lawn, I had to wonder, was I the only one here that felt excluded by that statement?

Only when a few others and I put together the Tufts Freethought Society (TFS) a year later did I find out that I was not alone; that statement had made each one of us uneasy. We were left asking, so we don’t believe in God, now what? As we began interacting with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, we found an answer: humanism.

Are you an agnostic? An atheist? Or simply non-religious? If so, you might identify with humanism.

Humanism, as defined by the British Humanist Association, “is the view that we can make sense of the world using reason, experience, and shared human values and that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. Humanists seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves. We choose to take responsibility for our actions and work with others for the common good.”

When humanism was explained to us, it clicked because it made sense:

Humanism is the belief that one can do good without a god and, what’s more, that people can make sense of things and lead fulfilling, happy, and ethical lives without being religious or believing in the supernatural.

People sometimes ask members of TFS what it is we do in our meetings. As a friend once put it, “I mean, do you just meet in a room and all agree that there is no God? Sounds like a short conversation.” If that described what we did, it would be. Atheism, secularism, and agnosticism don’t bring us very far. But humanism does, by providing non-religious individuals with a next step to reach their aspirations and to work together for the greater good.

A club, however, can only do so much for students, and non-religious students deserve a chaplaincy of their own from which they can seek guidance.  Non-religious students have just as many questions about the way to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life as religious students. If you are religious at Tufts, you fortunately have several resources available to you for answers to these questions, such as your reverend, pastor, rabbi, or imam.

If you are non-believer, however, your resources are not so obvious, though the argument has been made that they exist: your philosophy professor, your psychologist, Ears for Peers, and the Tufts chaplains. But they are not adequate.

It is not part of a philosophy professor’s job to take an active role in students’ lives. A psychologist has not been trained to assess the fundamental questions of life or understand the philosophical roots of your inquiry. Students on the other end of the Ears for Peers line should be commended for everything they do provide to Tufts students, but it must be acknowledged that they provide neither expertise nor the prospect of a continued and active mentoring relationship beyond the phone line.

As for the other chaplains? They certainly provide the fundamentals just described: they have studied religion and philosophy and have committed their lives to building relationships with Tufts students. They are guides, and, from what I have gathered, they are all wonderful people. But there is something they provide to their own, “the faithful,” that they cannot provide to others.

Imagine a teenager asking someone who thinks they’re Santa’s helper where presents come from. If the teenager is wholeheartedly seeking to find the truth and knows there’s no such thing as Santa but hears an answer that has to do with Santa Claus, then the answer he received falls short. In a similar way, a Muslim asking a Jewish rabbi how he ought to best live an Islamic life would yield unsatisfactory answers. Likewise, a conversation in which a humanist asks a Catholic priest about the meaning of life is destined to be unsatisfying. And yet, this is the only option available to non-religious students at Tufts.

For a school that found it justified to fund a chaplaincies for groups that comprise small portions of the population, the freshmen survey reveals that over one-third of students do not identify with any religion. It is shameful for such a large demographic to go unrepresented in the chaplaincies. You might be non-religious and be thinking, “I don’t need a Humanist Chaplain,” and that’s all right. Not all Catholics go to church on Sunday—at Tufts it is about a third who attend, according to Revered O’Leary—but would you ever argue that as a result, Catholics as a group don’t deserve a chaplain of their own?

It is my hope that the first step toward a humanist chaplaincy at Tufts would begin with a one-year commitment by the administration to put in place a humanist-in-residence at Tufts, whose duties would mimic all those of the current chaplains. This ought to be done for those who see the laws of nature behind miracles, for the people who need an open community based on their own worldview, and for those godless individuals who stand alongside me and wait for their turn to be integrated into the Tufts community and recognized as having equal needs.